Doron Langberg is a painter born in Israel and based in New York City. He received his BFA at the University of Pennsylvania and his MFA from Yale University. In 2019, he won the John Koch Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which is given to “a young artist of figurative work.” He has also been awarded spots in prestigious programs such as the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts Studio Program, the Sharpe Walentas Studio Program, Yaddo, and the Queer Art Mentorship Program. When one meets his paintings, one is—I think it safe to say—invariably struck by the color. When I stay and dwell a bit, I am then taken by the indolence, privacy, and waiting that define many of these painted worlds, but also with the way Langberg’s depiction of these quiet moments resonates with Walter Benjamin’s gnomic statement that “Boredom is the dream bird that broods the egg of experience.” The pairs of friends or lovers and the solitary individuals in the selection of paintings we’ve included here show Langberg’s keen sense of the beautiful promise, and promising beauty, that can be discerned in ordinary, domestic moments if one is attuned to their nuances. Below is a conversation we had via email during the month of April.
Gerald Maa (GM): Doron, could you tell us a little bit about how you got to this point in your practice? In particular, how did discover your principal interest in portraiture and color?
Doron Langberg (DL): I’ve always been interested in figurative works. The first art book I got, when I was about ten, I think, was Van Gogh’s complete paintings, and I vividly remember seeing exhibitions by Lucian Freud and Avigdor Arikha in Israel when I was in my early teens and feeling so compelled by the presence and intimacy of those works. But it’s funny for me think of myself as a “portrait painter”—it sounds so archaic. It doesn’t quite capture what it is I’m trying to do. For me, it’s all about creating something that feels alive, that feels like it has presence. And through that I found my way to portraiture, to working from observation—which was a part of my training and early work for decades, but I didn’t really pick it up as part of “my work” until six years ago or so. Color is a different story—it was only in graduate school that I really started thinking of color more rigorously. It was just too much for me to consider till then—it did too many things at once, and I didn’t really know what I wanted from it. I was thinking about more burning questions, like, What’s my subject matter? What am I trying to say with my work? I had to put color aside to get clarity on those issues. Coming to color late in my training, I think I’m still unpacking it—it continuously feels as if I’m only now starting to grasp it. From looking at colorists I admire, like Bonnard or Monet, color is a lifelong project.
GM: It’s interesting to hear that your commitment to color arose after this moment you moved from photograph to observation. The colors in your paintings are striking to me because they so much get at, or seek out, a sort of embodied experience of the painting—for both painter and observer. Makes me think of Goethe’s theory of colors, how colors are not as much effects of the natural world as products of human bodily experience that can be produced, communicated, and replicated at will.
DL: Yes, definitely! But I think the two are not mutually exclusive—color is both an effect of the natural world and an internal experience—which is what makes it so thrilling but also hard to wrangle. When I have a color idea it often comes from a concrete experience. For example, in my painting Morning 1 I was trying to capture the sensation of just waking up and feeling as if the space is humming in darkness, where there’s very little distinction between objects, or even between oneself and the environment. Since simply painting a dark room hardly communicates that feeling, my process started by figuring out what color structure can elicit that state of mind. Oftentimes I would retain a tonal structure that’s more or less representational, like a back-lit figure, or light and dark contrast to articulate form, but the actual colors I would use will be invented—creating a sense of mood or atmosphere. So I think of my use of color as having both a naturalistic element that ties it to “the real” and an imaginative element that is more emotional and internal.
GM: What moment, or collection of moments, sparked this interest in color?
DL: Hard to say! When I was in grad school, and shortly after, I tried to copy palettes from other paintings, but it never worked . . . It’s really something I had to figure out on my own. With Bonnard for example, his color structure is so tied to the materiality of his paintings—endless layers of dry dabs and drags of color, or Van Gogh with his bold color-changing outlines, et cetera. Every element of their work is completely inseparable from every other. For me, color really comes out of the qualities of the pigments I’m using and my painting process. I usually start my paintings with chromatic glazes using transparent pigments like Indian Yellow, Magenta, or Ultramarine Blue, and then the space and figures begin to emerge through line and patches of opaque colors. So the color of a piece has a lot to do with the layering, process, et cetera, and vice versa—the method of painting I choose for each piece is dependent on the color world I want to create.
GM: What, then, is the causal relationship, or the process, or the back-and-forth interchange, between this color world and the observed one? The worlds bodied forth on your canvases are consistently ones of the everyday, moreover ones defined by a strong mixture of the bored, the contemplative, and the erotic. What are you learning as you attend to this type of world, time and again, by way of your rigorous attention to color?
DL: At any given moment, my experience is a combination of my internal reality—who I am, where I’m from, my desires, et cetera—and my external reality—where I am, the people around me, current events, and so on. When I’m making a piece, I want it to capture both those realities at the same time. That’s why working from life and not stylistically is so important to me. For years, I felt there was something missing in the way I draw, because it’s not as expressive as most of my contemporaries. But I realized that stylization points inward, whereas I wanted to point outward—letting the viewer know these are real people in real places. As you mentioned, I’m attracted to Manet-esque scenes where almost nothing happens. Letting the narrative take a back seat gives space to the more subtle emotional elements of my paintings. For me, painting these scenes is how I discover what they are actually about. It’s kind of like thinking of a dream or a memory—the sensation of it is really strong, but when you try to articulate it there are so many questions and missing parts. Similarly, I always start with an idea of how I want a piece to feel, but I never know what it will end up looking like. I would have a few steps in mind to start out, but for the most part it’s a very responsive process where I make a move and then gauge whether it is creating the mood I’m after. Through this process the significance of these “idle” moments reveals itself to me.
GM: I suppose that’s why, when I look at your work en masse, it appears to me, quite pointedly, that you don’t really paint queer subjects, per se, but rather queer spaces, queer relations, queer collectives.
DL: Yes, I love that, thank you. For me, the “lens” is queer, not just the subject matter. That’s something that really only came about when I started working from observation as opposed to photos where I was the subject. Working from observation forced me to look outside of myself, and outside of experiences that were recognizably queer. Of course, many of my subjects are queer and the sexual paintings are very explicit about that—but it forced me to think about queerness in a more expansive way. My queerness is present in every aspect of my life—my friends, the media and culture I consume, the way I dress, how I’m perceived on the street, my relationship with my family, my relationship with the state, et cetera—it’s such a full and varied experience. I want my paintings to reflect that.
GM: And these paintings can be big. Many of them are, although not all of them. Can you talk about scale, and size, especially now that you’re working from observation? Susan Sontag famously described a photograph as something “stenciled off [from] the real” in opposition to painting’s essentially interpretive state. Assuming we agree with Sontag (very much an “if”), what do the frame, size, and scale do for you as you decide on what and how to paint some portion of the world that you’re observing?
DL: Despite my work being very “interpretive” like you’re saying, being life-sized, it relates to Sontag’s idea in having an indexical relationship to the “real.” So it’s really the subject matter that determines the size. If I’m painting a portrait it will be a small painting, and if I’m painting a landscape it will be a very large one. Since I can’t really paint these huge pieces from direct observation, I usually make a small portrait for each of the figures—inviting the subjects to my studio or going over to their places. For an hour or two I paint from observation, trying to get down a sense of the person and the color I want to use, and then continue working on it later in my studio. From those smaller pieces I paint the larger ones—it’s a very traditional process actually. But to answer your question, I think the main impact of my works being so big is their form—having large areas of color or sweeping marks allows for a totally different kind of physicality. Also, how I touch the surface, from delicate line-work to big pours, creates a range of attitudes and speeds that’s not possible for me on a smaller surface. Another thing that excites me about working large is that I love making work that feels intimate, but on a huge surface. Making the point that intimacy is not limited to small paintings and delicate gestures, but can be bold and encompassing.
GM: The idea of the color world and your two-step process (i.e., observation plus studio) makes me think of that defining passage by Charles Baudelaire on “the perfect flâneur,” “the passionate spectator,” which I take to be one and the same as the modern painter. It’s one of my favorite passages in all that I’ve read. “We might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself,” he says, adding, “or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.” Crudely speaking, observation could be the moment for response, and the studio is the place for the reproduction. I imagine the intimacy that you find so important to your work is preserved, or cultivated, or discovered, across both of these stages. What can you say about how intimacy evolves, or doesn’t (or what’s the correct verb here?), as you engage a scene to start and carry through a painting?
DL: Oh, I love that quote! I want to be a “kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness”! When I’m painting from observation and the subject is present, I really have to concentrate. I try to hold in my mind what I’m looking at, and the fact that I’m making a painting that has a composition, color, et cetera. It’s hard having clarity on both at the same time, and I can only go so far into a painting in this first step. But in a way, it’s also pretty casual, usually chatting a lot in the process. Almost like a therapy session—a lot of things come up. I think if I weren’t a painter I would probably be a psychologist like my mom and my sister—it’s my hidden talent. That openness and trust is a big part of the process. When I continue working on the painting without the sitter, that connection or intimacy with another person becomes a connection with the color and materiality of the piece, making every brush stroke feel specific and deliberate. I lost a close family member recently, and the first thing I did after the Siva was to paint them. I had a drawing and some pictures that I used for reference, but it really was my sense of them that was my guide, as if they were with me still. It was one of those rare paintings that I started and finished in a day—it was really clear in my mind. So I think the people I paint, who all play a role in my life, are present even when I’m not looking at them, and are continuously part of the process.
GM: Raised in a family of female psychologists—how fascinating! This hospitality reminds me what Hilton Als says of Alice Neel. According to Als,
When I first saw Alice Neel’s pictures, I think I recognized a similar ethos of inclusion in her work. The pictures were a collaboration, a pouring in of energy from both sides—the sitter’s and the artist’s
. . . Neel was not a sentimentalist, but you can tell where her concerns were: with those people who didn’t have the means to speak for themselves. It wasn’t that she always loved her East Harlem subjects, but you can always tell when she was turned on by them—by their physicality, mind, or interiority. She didn’t hide from the erotics of looking.
This brings us back to the queer space, the queer attachment you’ve spoken about in your work. You mention Alice Neel as an important influence. Could you speak a bit about her?
DL: Als is so brilliant. I remember the Neel show he curated; it blew my mind. I think his quote really gets at what’s so strong about Neel’s work—her straightforwardness and sensitivity. Her paintings feel totally unassuming and unencumbered by expectations of what a good, beautiful, or finished painting should look like. But despite that almost “provisional” sense of drawing, every move is so impactful. If a hip is only described with a contour—that line radically shifts the sense of volume in the painting. If a pair of pants is rendered with only two colors, they create the most specific sense of light. When I paint, I find it hard to paint defined features. It just feels flat and illustrative. But she can outline an eye and have it feel full of emotion. She pulls off so much with so little, while seeming as if she doesn’t care that much. Such a bold, aggressive painter, who makes the most quiet, soulful paintings. She’s a master. She’s kind of like Morandi to me, in the sense that she proves that the simplest ideas are the most powerful. But as much as I want to be that austere painter, I do think there’s something about a queer aesthetic that operates differently. Honesty, or sensitivity, is arrived at through different means. Of course it’s different for each artist, but I feel that for queer artists there’s a common baseline of excess, romanticism, camp, or playfulness, even in the most earnest work.
Images appear courtesy of the artist and Yossi Milo Gallery.
Copyright © 2020 Doron Langberg.